Amantha Dickman, News Director: You’re listening to “KZUM News” on 89.3 KZUM Lincoln and KZUM HD.
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Good afternoon and welcome to today’s edition of “KZUM News”, where we fill you in on what’s been going on in Lincoln this week. I am the KZUM News Director, and your host, Amantha Dickman
Grant Ferrell, News Intern: And I’m your co-host, Grant Ferrell.
As I promised last week, we have the second installment of our series about the Disability Rights Nebraska’s recently published report, “Second Class During the Pandemic.” But first, we are going to enjoy some relatively breaking news.
To kick us off, we have an update for you regarding the butterfly effect overturning Roe v. Wade has had.
On July 8, President Biden signed an Executive Order which aims to protect access to reproductive health care services. This Executive Order’s goal is to safeguard access to reproductive health care services, coordinating the implementation of Federal efforts to protect access to reproductive health care, and protect the privacy of patients while ensuring access to accurate information. If you wish to read more you can do so at whitehouse.gov or by clicking the link in the transcript for today’s show.
On July 15, the House voted to pass H.R. 3755 and H.R. 8297. If you aren’t familiar with these bills, links to the official documents can be found in today’s transcript as well. But to summarize, H.R. 3755 would protect an individual’s right to continue or end a pregnancy and protect a health care provider’s ability to provide that service. This builds on President Biden’s plans to codify abortion rights into federal law. Meanwhile, H.R. 8297 contributes to these protections by guaranteeing an individual’s rights to travel across state lines for the purpose of obtaining reproductive health care services. Now, both bills will be put in front of the Senate.
In the meantime, Nebraskan officials are still considering stricter abortion bans. Earlier this year, Governor Pete Ricketts announced plans to call for a special session to broach the matter. While Governor Ricketts has yet to give any indication on whether he plans to follow through, advocates and opponents continue to debate how to proceed. That’s all we know for now. We will keep you updated once the Senate has voted.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: Next up, the Lincoln Police Department is calling for witnesses on an ongoing kidnapping and assault case. Here is LPD to tell us more.
Captain Todd Kocian, of the Lincoln Police Department: Good afternoon, everyone.
Thank you for coming on such short notice. We’re here today to provide some information on the arrests of two individuals following a kidnapping and assault investigation.
With us today are Chief Ewins, Assistant Chief Stille, Assistant Chief Morrow, Assistant Chief Jackson, and I’m Captain Kocian. Chief Ewins will be addressing the group, followed by a brief question and answer session. We will make an announcement when the question and answer session has ended.
Again, thank you all for coming, and at this point, I’ll turn it over to Chief Ewins.
Chief Teresa Ewins, of the Lincoln Police Department: Hello everybody. Thanks for coming on such short notice.
The purpose of this press conference is to provide an overview regarding arrests of suspects this afternoon in the kidnapping, assault, sexual assault case that occurred in the area of 56 and I-80 on July 28 on Thursday evening.
On Friday, the 29, at approximately 8:30 in the morning, Lincoln Police Department was notified by Gage County Sheriff’s Department deputies that a 26-year-old man was located in their jurisdiction, bound and walking along a road with obvious injuries. When contacted, the victim indicated that he was kidnapped and beaten at a location in Lincoln prior to being transported to an unknown location in Gage county.
During the investigation, it was discovered that a second victim was kidnapped, assaulted, and sexually assaulted. The investigation is ongoing and at this time we will not be commenting regarding the second victim.
Police investigators followed up throughout the day and, at approximately 3:00 p.m. on Friday, officers located Austin Widhalm, 26 years old, at his residence here in Lincoln and took him into custody without an incident. He was lodged for kidnapping, first-degree assault, first-degree sexual assault, use of a weapon to commit a felony, and two counts of false imprisonment.
The second suspect in this case – at approximately 2:00 p.m. today, 30-year-old Tanner Danielson, also a Lincoln resident – was located and arrested by task force personnel in Rapid City, South Dakota without incident. Danielson was lodged for the charges of first-degree assault, first-degree sexual assault, use of a weapon to commit a felony, and false imprisonment.
Please respect the victims and their family’s privacy during this time of healing. While arrests have been made, this investigation is ongoing and we encourage anyone with information to call (402) 441 – 6000 or make an anonymous report to crime stoppers at (402) 475 – 3600.
I wanna thank the quick response by our investigators and our ongoing collaboration with our area partners to include Gage County Sheriff’s office and the US Marshall service. With that, I’ll take questions. And, again, I will tell you that this is… it’s going to be very limited in what we could say, cuz this is unfolding as you know, that there is an arrest this afternoon. So, we’re gathering more and more information.
Andrew Wegley, Breaking News Reporter for the Lincoln Journal Star: Is there any immediate danger to anybody else in the public?
Chief Teresa Ewins, of the Lincoln Police Department: You know, um, yeah, let me just be clear. One of the reasons why we wanted to come before you is to let the public know that this… there was a relationship between all these people. We don’t know to what degree, but it is not random.
And, so, we want everyone to understand that this is not random, um, and we feel very safe that the public is in good hands right now.
Andrew Wegley, Breaking News Reporter for the Lincoln Journal Star: Do you know the extent of the injuries that were received?
Assistant Chief Jason Stille, of the Lincoln Police Department: Again, my name is Jason Stille. I’m an Assistant Chief in charge of investigations.
Um, right now, there were obvious injuries when the male subject was picked up in Gage county that consists of burns to the face, the arms, the legs, and then also several abrasions.
So, um, he was treated at a hospital there in the area and we’ll know a little bit more about the status of his injuries, I guess, as the investigation unfolds.
Chris Lofgren, Morning Traffic Reporter for KLIN-AM: And was that second victim injured in any other way besides sexual assault?
Assistant Chief Jason Stille, of the Lincoln Police Department: Well, I would say that’s a significant injury. Um, and so yes, I think, you know, that’s, that’s pretty significant in my mind,
Chief Teresa Ewins, of the Lincoln Police Department: As I said earlier, this is, this is a case that’s unfolding. We are looking for witnesses. Um, this is something that takes time and all of you have… we’ve had this conversation. It takes time to do these investigations. It takes time to put together all the information and understand what exactly happened. And, so, we ask for people’s patients because this is actually, um, gonna take, take some time.
It’s gonna take a lot of investigators to put everything together and understand it. So, we’re gonna be looking for video. We’re gonna be looking for all those things that we need to actually put a case together. And, so, we really want everyone to understand that, um, we don’t wanna say anything that’s gonna jeopardize, like the assistant chief said, their memory or put anything into anyone’s head about this.
We need to find the facts. It’s that simple.
Chris Lofgren, Morning Traffic Reporter for KLIN-AM: Were these guys on your radar at all for any of this… at all?
Chief Teresa Ewins, of the Lincoln Police Department: In general? As happening previously? Uh, not that I’m aware.
All right. Thank you, guys, for your time.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: As mentioned, LPD is currently searching for witnesses to the crime. You can call (402) 441-6000 or make an anonymous tip to lincolncrimestoppers.com.
Grant Ferrell, News Intern: In our July 2 episode, we shared that the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services and Douglas County Health Department had identified an individual in the state who had tested positive for Monkeypox. Since then, the CDC has confirmed nine other cases of Monkeypox in Nebraska.
Our reporters have noticed a wealth of misinformation being spread on social media claiming that Monkeypox can only be contracted and transmitted by certain demographic groups. KZUM News would like to clarify that anyone can contract or transmit the virus.
We will link to the CDC’s page on Monkeypox in our transcript. But, for those who don’t have time to read right now, we would like to remind you that the Monkeypox virus is genetically similar to the Smallpox virus. It is transmitted through any prolonged physical contact with either infected individuals or infected surfaces. It can also pass through respiratory droplets. Those who have contracted Monkeypox can spread the virus to others from the time symptoms start until the rash has fully healed, a time period that usually spans two to four weeks.
Please keep in mind that – true to its name – Monkeypox is characterized by a rash that can look like pimples or blisters that appear all over the body. Other symptoms include fever, headache, muscle ache, swollen lymph nodes, chills, and exhaustion. If you are displaying symptoms, the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department encourages you to quarantine. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to reach out to your healthcare provider.
Lastly, remember to practice good hand hygiene and use personal protective equipment when caring for ailing individuals.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: And, lastly, Lincoln’s Transportation and Utilities Department announced changes to StarTran that would go into effect on July 29. We’re joining them to learn more about these changes.
Liz Elliot, Director of Lincoln Transportation and Utilities: Good morning. Thank you all for joining us today. I’m Liz Elliot, director of Lincoln Transportation and Utilities.
StarTran transit system is an essential service that offers the Lincoln community vital transportation year-round. The Lincoln bus system is an environmentally friendly transportation option that offers about 10,000 rides every day as community members get to and from work, doctor appointments, school, the grocery store, and much more. And, more than that, the people who dedicate their careers to Lincoln’s transit systems are the heart of this organization. They work hard to provide great customer service, safe and timely bus rides for passengers, and a pleasant atmosphere for all.
Since the pandemic began in 2020, StarTran is one of many city transit systems that have been hit by the hiring shortage currently going on across the nation. Despite our best efforts to attract additional applicants the last two years, StarTran has had to make the tough decision to modify its hours of service due to a lack of bus operators.
Beginning Thursday, August 18, StarTran’s fixed route evening service, van link on demand service, and paratransit service will end at 7:00 p.m., three hours earlier than what is currently being offered.
This was not an easy decision because we know this change will affect a number of passengers across the community. We appreciate the community’s patience and understanding.
The changes will impact about 2% of StarTrans daily rides. Two bus routes will not be affected by these modifications: routes 24 and 25 near the University of Nebraska Lincoln campus, along with limited paratransit service within ¾ of a mile of these routes will continue to operate until 9:00 p.m. Notices and updated schedules will be placed on the buses, on our website, and on social media.
StarTrans bus operators have served the public through these challenging times without fail. I am so proud of their dedication to this community. These service modifications will give StarTran bus operators a little relief as we continue to maintain a successful and safe transit program.
As for our transit system, StarTran is taking additional steps to address the bus operator shortage. I’m excited to announce plans for a three-month hiring campaign that will kick off mid-September and extend through mid-November. We are thinking big and finding new, innovative ways to attract great candidates and reach as many people as we can. The StarTran hiring campaign will have an online presence and market to potential applicants on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn. Radio, billboards, and an interactive website will also offer applicants an exciting and visual way to learn about transit opportunities and give potential teammates an easy roadmap to join our team. We encourage anyone interested to consider this rewarding career.
If you are interested but you’ve never driven a commercial vehicle before, we still encourage you to apply. Our team will train you. We’ll let you practice on our bus simulator and we will pay for your commercial driver’s license test and license.
A new interactive career-focused website will be developed for interested job seekers to connect to. Potential applicants will be able to learn more about the benefits of public service, why Lincoln’s current bus operators enjoy what they do, and highlight our health, retirement, and other great benefits that working for the city of Lincoln brings.
In addition to this effort, our team is planning a StarTran hiring day in October. This event is the first of its kind here at the city of Lincoln. Our team is excited to offer this all-inclusive hiring event where interested applicants will be able to visit StarTran, meet potential coworkers, apply, and interview all in just an hour or two.
This type of convenient and fast hiring is sometimes unheard of in government. We are here to change that perception and offer this unique opportunity. But if you’re eager to apply, please don’t wait. We are actively hiring right now. We have 23 bus operator positions ready to be filled immediately.
Please go to lincoln.ne.gov/transitcareer to apply. And with that, we can open it up to questions.
Unidentified Journalist: How many drivers do you have?
Liz Elliot, Director of Lincoln Transportation and Utilities: We currently have 85, um, operators and we’re 23 down.
Unidentified Journalist: Is your, what are your long-term plans? Do you want to reinstitute those hours?
Liz Elliot, Director of Lincoln Transportation and Utilities: Our goal is to not only reinstitute the hours, but our vision is to ultimately enhance and increase the service here in the community.
We’re hoping that by our January bid, which is mid-January, that we will be able to start increasing service again.
All right. Thank you all for joining us today and let us know if you have any other questions.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: There’s nothing worse than getting to your destination and realizing you have no way to get home. Especially when Lincoln is dealing with extreme weather.
We’re going to take a quick commercial break. After that, we have the second installment of our investigative report on the Disability Rights Nebraska’s recently released study “Second Class During the Pandemic.” Stick around to learn more.
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Amantha Dickman, News Director: Welcome back to KZUM News.
During our July 23 episode, we aired part one of our report on the Disability Rights Nebraska’s recently released study “Second Class During the Pandemic.” We sat down with Amy Miller of the Disability Rights Nebraska to learn about the report itself and then we met with John Wyvill and Kelsey Cruz of the Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing to learn about Covid-19’s impacts on their clients.
Today we are airing part two in the series.
Now, if you missed part one, I’m going to give you a quick recap.
In November 2020, the Disability Rights Nebraska documented Nebraska’s pre-pandemic planning and the ways in which it overlooked caring for individuals with disabilities in a report titled
The December 2021 report, titled emphasized the ways folks with disabilities have been disproportionately impacted by Covid-19 due to both heightened susceptibility and a lack of accessible resources. This report also laid out potential legislative steps could address the gaps in care for disabled folks. But we’ll talk to Brad Meurrens about that later.
For now, we’re meeting with Executive Director, Carlos Servan, of the Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired. He’s going to tell us more about the ways Covid-19 impacted his client base.
Can you clarify for listeners who may not be familiar with the Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired, what it is that you do as an organization, who you serve, and what your goals are?
Carlos Servan, Executive Director of the Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired: Yes. The Nebraska commission for the blind and visually impairs is the sister agency of Voc Rehab, the vocational rehabilitation agency in Nebraska.
They provide services to all disabilities and we serve the blind. They, they don’t. We serve blind people who are… blind and also have other disabilities. The main services is vocational rehabilitation, meaning folks who want to reenter employment, gain employment, or retain employment. Many times, blind people don’t have the skills or we start training them, providing the equipment, and eventually paying for training if they want to go to college and help them find employment.
The second part of our services is independent living. Many blind people become blind in their senior years because of age related conditions. So, we provide independent living so they can stay at home rather than spending their last years in a nursing home.
We teach them to take care of things at home, administer their own medication, cook, clean, use the computer, stay in contact with their loved ones. In fact, for this particular population, we will have a statewide convention or conference by the end of August; I think it’s always the 31 or September 1. So that, that’s what we do for, for blind people.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: Can you tell us a little bit about what the Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired experienced during COVID? Did you have access to the resources that those visually paired people had access to?
Carlos Servan, Executive Director of the Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired: Actually, we had some obstacles and problems in getting access. As blind people, we don’t drive. So, in the beginning, when they were telling us “go to this and this place for a test,” many of those places were not accessible to buses, number one. Number two, you were not supposed to be on public transportation if you had a risk to be already contagious. So, yeah, when we called, they didn’t know how to deal with that.
It was frustrating for us blind people. And, also, for the Lincoln-Lancaster Health Department. We talked to the state health and human services; they also didn’t know how to deal with that.
It was frustrating. It was difficult.
Like people called the agency to find out what we could do. Technically speaking, we couldn’t help just any blind person, except if they were clients of the agency, if they were getting services from us then we incorporated that as part of achieving their goals, but it was very difficult.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: And you mentioned that the Lancaster County was also very frustrated. Did you communicate with them to discuss future accommodations and were those accommodations implemented as time went on?
Carlos Servan, Executive Director of the Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired: Yes, we did.
And when I say frustrated it was because they were frustrated, but they wanted to work with us and, actually, they themselves told blind people, “we will go, we will pick you up and take you to get your test.” So, they, they did that. They did that.
They… what I heard from other consumers is that the Lincoln-Lancaster Health Department went over what they were supposed to do, meaning their staff members, early in the mornings, sometimes after 5:00 PM, sometimes on the weekend.
So, they, they did a great job.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: And we’re looking at, potentially, another wave that is coming up. Are there any more accommodations that you would like to see with this next wave potentially?
Carlos Servan, Executive Director of the Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired: Well, now the tests are almost everywhere. When you want to administer it yourself, it, it’s hard. It’s… they don’t have yet non-visual instructions.
The consumers are working on advocating for themselves. So, some pharmacists do provide instructions. There is a, I think, secure code and some folks have well, a iPhones or smartphones that have applications and will read the secure code so they can read instructions that way. And that’s thanks to consumers.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: And we’ve talked a lot about accessibility to physical locations and Covid-19 tests. What about information regarding Covid-19? You mentioned those iPhones are… are those applications set up to read that information out loud?
Carlos Servan, Executive Director of the Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired: Yes.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: Do websites need to be formatted a specific way for the apps to recognize them?
Carlos Servan, Executive Director of the Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired:
Yeah, we run into that too with the state and, and the city. The city has more access and I think it’s because they have less employees, less people, they are smaller. So, it’s easier to make those decisions and to deal with the software.
The state has different contrasts; they’re big umbrellas. So, when you speak to the CIO, no… yeah, the chief information officer, they are subcontracting with somebody else. And, likewise, those subcontractors are subcontracting with a third party and it takes a long time to fix the problem. And sometimes even a long time to find the problem. And if you don’t find the problem, it’s hard to find the solution.
But to answer your question, is that we, the Commission for the Blind, now are contracting with a blind computer scientist who is helping the state of Nebraska to make the webpage accessible. In fact, I think it’s called ServeNebraska, their webpage, and they are testing in these days. But we are working with them.
But it was, it was very frustrating. I think the concern now, if we get a new Covid-19 will be how accessible the test will be.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: And… I mean. Clearly this has been a subject for many years, that there needed to be improvements in terms of accessibility for technology. What is your primary suggestion for people who are in the process of developing technology and within keeping accessibility in mind?
Carlos Servan, Executive Director of the Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired:
Yeah. When they start developing the system, they need to keep that in mind from the beginning, rather than thinking about blind people or people with disabilities in general at the end.
Because it’s almost impossible to fix that at the end and to involve blind people in doing those, those webpage development or applications. There are plenty of blind people who can help in doing those things. And I keep telling people “call so and so, you know, be in touch with this person” and they say, “yeah, yeah, we will.”
But when, we are not there yet, when they contact those folks, it’s almost too late because I think they need to do it from the beginning. It’s cheaper. It’s easier. It’s, it’s more accessible.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: In terms of accessibility, we also are looking at educational resources for people to better understand blind individuals’ experiences. Can you talk about some of those resources and how individuals can educate themselves so that they can help understand accessibility better?
Carlos Servan, Executive Director of the Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired: Yes.
I can give you three names. Of course, our webpage is NCBVI.nebraska.gov. Also, the National Federation of the Blind has a lot of resources is NFB.org. Then the American Council of the Blind, also ACP.org.
And the last one that comes to mind is the American Foundation for the Blind is AFB.org. All the information is accessible to their fingertips. They don’t have to go anywhere. They can just look at those on their desks.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: Is there anything that we have not asked that you feel is important to the subject and would like to comment on or expand upon?
Carlos Servan, Executive Director of the Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired: Yeah.
Just in general, I can say that around 70% of blind people are either unemployed or underemployed. Most of the time, it’s because of misconception of the blind. It’s not a lack of capability. So, we thank you for letting us be on your station so the public can learn more about us. We are normal people. We use different techniques to accomplish the same goals. We are also people, meaning blind folks many times have also misconception about the blind. They limit themselves. And many times, our teachers limit us, our own family limit us.
So, to get into those webpages, resources, and to learn more about what can be done.
And we need to invest in blind people, a great deal, and we do it because we know that blind folks can compete in terms of equality can do almost any kind of job. There is still some exceptions, but most jobs we can do it just efficiently, like our sighted partners.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: Excellent. Thank you so much.
Carlos Servan, Executive Director of the Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired: Sure.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: And we’re going to take a quick break but don’t leave just yet. We’re following up with Brad Meurrens of the Disability Rights Nebraska to learn more about the report and the legislative action that resulted.
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Amantha Dickman, News Director: I am glad you stuck around. Before the break, we met with Carlos Servan the executive director for the Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired. He was generous enough to give us insight as to how Covid-19 impacted his client base.
But, now, we’re going to meet with Brad Meurrens, the public policy director for Disability Rights Nebraska. He’s going to tell us more about the legislative changes the organization has been advocating for and what progress they have made over the last six months.
Now we’re focusing on that “Second Class during the Pandemic” report. Can you kind of give us an overview of what this report was about and the findings?
Brad Meurrens, Public Policy Director for Disability Rights Nebraska: Sure.
So, when the Covid-19 pandemic came upon us, the literature, you know, indicated that persons with disabilities, for a variety of different reasons, are more susceptible and vulnerable to the virus. They’re more susceptible to catching the virus. And they’re also at a higher risk of major complications, hospitalization, and fatality due to their viral infection in Covid-19.
One of the ways in which the persons with disabilities are more susceptible and more vulnerable to catching the virus was that those folks that live in facilities and congregate settings – like assisting facilities, group homes, nursing homes – live amongst other people. And we know that, you know, that carries a risk.
Also, they’re… they often have multiple conditions, preexisting conditions, if you will. That also puts them at a greater risk of contracting and having complications with the virus. Plus, also, in those settings, staff come in and out and are going in and out of rooms, for example or may see multiple individuals for different services throughout the day.
And, at the end of the day, end of their shift, they’ll go home, rope into the community. And then their shift starts the next day. They’ll come back into the facility or the group home or the congregate living facility. And, so, there’s always a constant risk of exposure. Internally and externally. So, we were really concerned, as an organization, of how, you know, Nebraskans with disabilities in general and particularly those individuals with disabilities who live in those type of settings were faring during the pandemic, you know. What, what’s the impact? What’s the scope? How, you know, what size are we talking about? You know, what, what, where are we at? How… what’s the infection rate, those sort of things.
And, you know, in our initial research, we noted that there were several initial outbreaks. Blair, Nebraska, I think was the first one that we were aware of, here in Nebraska, where they had significant outbreaks and viral infections in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and they had deaths.
So, we were really concerned about those folks that were living in those situations, given their unique vulnerabilities. And, so, we were concerned initially about the test Nebraska testing program. And we had produced a report around that particular program and its impact and accessibility for persons with disabilities.What we found was that the testing in Test Nebraska was not as accessible and left a lot of person’s disabilities out. For example, persons who… the Test Nebraska registration had to be done on the internet. Well, if you didn’t have internet, you were gonna have difficulty registering for the program.
And as we know, a lot of persons with disabilities, even in Nebraska, live at or below the poverty line. So, we’re not talking to a lot of folks, especially the ones that we’re living in those congregate settings, are gonna be likely to have the, you know, spare cash to have a vehicle or to be able to afford to get to the site, if they could even register. If they, if they could afford the internet, do they… are… can they read the screen? Is it, is that, is the screen accessible? You know, may… they may not have transportation: is there accessible transportation? So, and, you know, so we’re concerned that the, even the testing site themselves had steps. So, there were some, some of there was, there were some problems that we identified in the testing program itself.
And then we produced another report talking about the, when the vaccines became online or, you know, available. We had looked at the vaccine program as well. And what we found in the back, in that, in, in that later program, is that the vaccine program was not, was also equally not as accessible.
The vaccine prioritization changed from a disease-centric to an age-based-criteria. So, a person with a disability, despite being more vulnerable to complications and contraction of COVID their 50-year-old, 60-year-old grandma would have, would be able to get the vaccine months before an individual who has down syndrome or would have another type of disability that puts him at higher risk.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: And then once the report was released, Sharon mentioned that you took steps to get the bill in front of the legislature and see what outcomes could be produced. Can you tell us a little bit about that process and what it accomplished in those early months?
Brad Meurrens, Public Policy Director for Disability Rights Nebraska: Sure, I’d be happy to. And that’s, that’s kind of where I really come into the picture.
You know, I talked to Amy and Sharon and our chief executive officer and our legal director and our staff. And we talked to other folks and we’re trying to get a picture of, you know, what can we do systematically around the pandemic, and pandemics, or emergencies in general because those sort of things affect persons disabilities as well as anybody else.
Because, remember, in Nebraska, something around 11% to 12% of persons here in Nebraska identify had having a disability and there are persons with disabilities in every single county in Nebraska. And, so, what happens to everybody happens to everybody, whether they’re have disability or not.
So, one of the things that we were looking through the statutes around the emergency management agency and emergency management here in Nebraska, because that issue emergency management disaster planning has really gained a lot of national interest and inertia lately in the past few years for example, our agency has hosted disability preparedness workshop a couple of years ago with our National Disability Rights Network and the Fire Marshals and EMTs. And first responders came. We talked about the importance of disability and preparedness and planning. And, so, we were kind of… we’ve also been participating in the Niagara Universities, come to Nebraska to provide a series of trainings around emergency disaster management and planning both on the individual level, and on the systems level, the state level, the county level. And, so, we were kind of… I was… we were kind of thinking in that vein. And, so, we were looking through the statutes around the emergency management here in Nebraska, and we noticed that in statute 81- 8290.41 – sorry, I’m a legislation nerd. I can’t help it. – we noticed that in that particular piece of statute it requires the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency, otherwise known as NEMA, it requires NEMA to consult when they’re developing these emergency operations plans, which are used as kind of a template for counties and localities to plan out and organize mitigation recovery, a response to these disasters, of a variety of different nature types of disasters. They have these plans at the county, local, and state level. And, so, we noticed that when NEMA is helping develop these operations plans, these emergency operations plans they’re required to for consult with governmental agencies and the private sector.
But we thought, well, you know, given that we know that emergencies and disasters like floods a few years ago in Columbus, in Fremont, right? And tornadoes and fires and wildfires, like what were happening in Western Nebraska or, you know, those natural disasters and emergencies of all types will affect persons disabilities. And the optimal solutions and prevention and recovery from those disasters and emergencies, the optimal solutions include the perspective of person’s disability because disability presents a unique circumstance that needs to be addressed in the response to and prevention of mitigation response recovery from disasters.
And, so, we thought, well, if they’re required to speak with governmental agencies and the private sector, although we don’t know who as it doesn’t specify who those entities would be, I mean, our thought was well, does, you know, does HDR have a strong background in how to respond to a person with a mobility impairment?
I mean, maybe, maybe not. Right.
So, we thought, and again, that’s not a pejorative statement and that’s not casting aspersions on anyone, whether that’s HDR, I’m just using him as an example, but it’s on any private sector or NEMA for that matter. We just thought it might be really important to require them not only to speak to those groups, but also to speak to disability advocacy organizations and or disability or organizations that provide services to persons with disabilities, because they can not only provide that unique perspective, that Nebraska perspective and that lived experience but also we have connections into the community. So, we can provide that communication to NEMA about how to respond adequately and accurately to a variety of different types of disabilities because we’re hearing from those individuals that have that lived experience and their advocacy organizations that have resources at the national level and other states and other models. We have access to that. We can help facilitate the input by person’s disabilities to NEMA and other emergency managers across the state to help provide adequate response. Plus, we can also help facilitate communication from NEMA to the general, to the disability community. So, we thought it would be really important to have that kind of in writing.
And again, we didn’t see this as being a, you know, poking NEMA or see it as, you know, being critical. We wanted just really to raise the issue and to have a public discussion.
So, I follow the advice that I give my advocates and fellow persons for disabilities that if you see an issue, go talk to your state Senator. So, I went to my state Senator and I approached Senator Day. And I said, you know, “here’s something we noticed in state statute. Here’s something that we think, we know it needs to be rectified this way, you know, what do you think?”
And, so, we were happy Senator Day agreed to introduce legislation and Legislative Bill 1104 was introduced.
And, again, the major thrust of that bill was two things. The first was to get that consultation and that communication networks and information awareness flowing from NEMA, to NEMA, from the community, to the community. And it also it also added the word disability to the title of the already existing registries of functional needs.
So what is that?
The state already produces… these counties already have these registries of functional need, which is basically a list of people in the particular area. Some, some have a county level, some counties band together and do it like a regional level and kind of keep a list of people who have a functional need, a communication issue, a mobility impairment. They have a need, a functional need in the time of a disaster or emergency. And, so, they have these registers. But I, we thought, if I’m a person with a disability, do I know that I’m a person with a functional need? Like is that clear? And, so, we just thought in order to be really clear that the intent is to get people with disabilities included in those lists, that they all, you know, they include persons who may not identify as how to get functional need, but may say that they have a disability or a disabling condition would encourage them to, you know, maybe sign up to the list and get on those functional need registries.
So that’s basically the gist of the bill.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: And has this bill already gone out to the floor? Has it been accepted, rejected? What’s the updated status on that?
Brad Meurrens, Public Policy Director for Disability Rights Nebraska: That’s an excellent question.
So, the bill was well received in the hearing. There was no opposition. In fact… in fact, it went in front of the government, military and veterans affairs committee and the Senator Brewer, the Chair of that committee floored us because he, in between testifiers, he talked about his experiences post-Katrina in New Orleans and trying to get people with disabilities out of places where the, you know, people were flooded and help trying to help folks with disabilities it, you know, post-Katrina. And so, you know, I think he really understood what we were trying to get at. In fact, he even said it would’ve really been helpful to have these connections and have that, you know, that specific, accurate information on the ground in real time post-Katrina.
So, it was well received.
There was no opposition, the, the bill made it to general file. And was proposed as an amendment to the business and labor committee priority bill. I think it was LB 512, I think was the number. But, unfortunately, the machinations and the process in the last month and last few weeks of the legislature, you know… you never… all bets are off. So, unfortunately, it did not progress any further than a general file.
And as a result, this session was the second session. So, the short session. So, bills that did not get passed outright through, or were indefinitely postponed, or were killed outright at the end of this session, but that’s… but I’m glad you’re asked, asked that original question because that’s not the end of the story.
I’m also very happy to report a couple of different things.
One is there was talk, even initially when we were broaching the topic and the legislation, initially there was talk about if it doesn’t go anywhere, maybe there’s, you know, there’s always next year. And we kind of had those sort of ideas discussed with senators, the, you know, with next session and we’ll see where that goes.
But I think the other, while I think the legislative door on LB 1104 was closed, it opened a window with the agency. So, we were contacted toward the end of session. If we would participate with NEMA in a work group that they were establishing working with the UNL Public Policy Center and a host of other emergency manager folks and departments agencies. We’re gonna work in a work group together to work on NEMA’s new strategic plan. And, so, they invited us or invited our agency, me, to participate in this four month long or so work group session to help NEMA strategize and develop a new strategic plan. And then kind of, and to help them think about no, how do we, and then how do we operationalize the strategic plan?
So, we were very happy to be invited and we were excited to participate and I think we are also playing an important role because we can also work as a conduit between, you know, the agency and their staff, and emergency managers at local and county level and those agencies. We can help be a conduit like to the disability community and from the disability community to NEMA and this work group.
In fact, we’ve, we’ve helped. We arranged several meetings with the work group survey folks to get information and provide a survey to a couple of different disability organizations. So, we’ve already been, you know, making those connections and telling people what’s going on and getting their input and making them aware of what’s gonna happen and you know, kind of providing, providing those bridges.
And, so, we’re happy to do that. I always say to folks, you know, I go to a lot of meetings and I know a lot of people: let’s use that. You don’t make a network to let it sit there. You use it, you build a network to use it. So, we’re very happy to do that.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: Absolutely. And then just a clarification question for listeners who might not understand what a general file is; can you explain that really quick?
Brad Meurrens, Public Policy Director for Disability Rights Nebraska: Oh, yes, sure. Sorry. Again, I…I got my legislative lobbyist nerd hat on and I kind of get in my zone, so I apologize.
General file is legislative jargon for the floor. General file is the first stage of full legislature debate. If you’ve ever seen like on TV or on the news, or if you happen to watch the live streaming of the session like I do, you’ll see the, you know, the centers are, are standing up and they’re making speeches on the floor with the, with the pen, with the mics, and they’re all sitting at their desks and that’s what that general file is. Well, at least that’s what it is. The first round of full legislature.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: And then another clarifying question. So it was not passed outright, this last session. Do you plan to propose it again or carry it to the next session as well?
Brad Meurrens, Public Policy Director for Disability Rights Nebraska: No, that’s a good question. I don’t think we’ve really decided what we’re gonna do concretely yet.
That certainly is something we’re, you know, kind of thinking about and is always in reserve. So, we’ll kind of get back together with our staff and see if there’s maybe there’s something we wanna add to, or there’s something we missed in, you know, a later section of the statutes or there may be another model that we’re looking at that we’ve learned about through our national connection. So, I think we’re gonna kind of get back together, regroup and see if that’s a strategy we wanna do. Or if we are sufficiently, you know, satisfied with the behind the scenes work. Words are important to me. And, so, I always kind of like to have things, you know, in writing, if it’s not in writing, you know. There’s always a chance it doesn’t get done.
So, but again I have been very impressed with the expressed desire and recognition of the need to include persons with disabilities and to address those different needs that that community has with the folks that are in this work group and the discussions that I’ve listened to from folks at NEMA and these other emergency managers. I’ve been really impressed with their, their willingness and desire to reach out to and make connections with this community.
So, I’m excited about what the future’s going to hold. So, we’ll put a pin in the legislation,but we’ll see where it goes.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: And you’re working with the department to outline these accommodations. Do you have an idea of what that timeline is going to look like?
Brad Meurrens, Public Policy Director for Disability Rights Nebraska: I do believe they are looking at sometime in September for the finalization and or dissemination of the new strategic plan.
And then I’m not exactly sure what the level of detailed, you know… objectives and work plans and how to, you know… how they’re going, you know… logistics to achieve those strategic plan objectives. I don’t exactly know what the calendar is for that, but we’re excited to, you know, make those connections.
And, so, when they do have the plan, I think we’ll be in a good position to easily and seamlessly, you know, be an avenue to disseminate and raise awareness about that plan. And I think that, and I think those conversations and the awareness raising around the strategic plan’s development and, and the new plan, I think will also feed into and help the department and the agency think about and accommodate those needs. And it’s a variety of needs. It’s all individualized.
But I think the first step is realization and awareness, and I think we’re on the right path.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: For listeners, can you clarify who NEMA is? You mentioned what it is they do in a general sense, but can you get a little more in depth with that description, please?
Brad Meurrens, Public Policy Director for Disability Rights Nebraska: Sure. Sure. NEMA is short for the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency. They are the state version of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
And, so, they’re, in a nutshell and I’m sure they can explain it more detail or they even the website, basically, they’re the ones that will help coordinate and, and, and distribute resources and develop plans for responding to a whole variety of different types of emergencies and disasters.
That’s what I would say they do. And I’m sure that they would have more detail, but they do have emergency operations plans they’re available on the, on the internet. You might have to go search for ’em a little bit. But there’s more information about NEMA and FEMA and there’s…
And, actually, I was surprised. There’s a wealth of information around disability and disaster planning and emergencies. And I was gonna say, if your listeners are looking for more information, we did a webinar year or so ago on emergency preparation and disability on an individual level.
And that can be obtained at www.nesilc.org. And you’ll wanna look for the media link at the top of the screen and look for the disability education series. And if you look at all the videos, there’s one that has a, I think the, the picture is like a person as a first responder in a really bright, reflective yellow vest. That we did an hour and a half. That’s part of the disability education series. It’s an hour and a half long webinar every month on a different disability topic. So that month we did emergency planning. You know, why is it important to have a go bag and what do you need to put in it? And the recognition that, for example, shelters need to be accessible. Sometimes they’re not. But, again, disasters affects versus disabilities and a variety of different, different types of disabilities. And, so, you knows the idea that we need to really think about those or planning responses and setting things up.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: Well, thank you so much for allowing me to sit down with you today and learn more. I really appreciate it.
Brad Meurrens, Public Policy Director for Disability Rights Nebraska: You bet. I look forward to it. Thank you. Have a great.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: You too. Bye. Bye.
If you want to learn more you can read both reports on the Disability Rights Nebraska’s website or you can find links to the reports in today’s transcript. In the meantime, keep an ear out for any updates regarding changes coming up this next legislative session.
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